ATHENS – Aaron Murray laid crumpled on the ground. After a moment he got up, but only with the help of trainers.
Moments later they began a slow, painful and poignant walk toward the Georgia football locker room.Fans who had come to this game to show their final appreciation for the star quarterback clapped. Some chanted his name.
Murray had done his part, and Georgia would win. But he would finish the game at the hospital.
In a macabre way, it was only fitting for this Georgia season that its home finale would see its star quarterback, the last of the unscathed offensive stars, have to be carried off the field.
In an already mentally exhausting season, Georgia couldn’t even enjoy a 59-17 win on senior night. The left knee injury to their most popular player cast a pall.
“It was sickening,” head coach Mark Richt said. “I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the game.”
“He’s always been that guy that everyone thought he gets hit, he gets smacked, he gets back up. And you always thought that no hit could keep him down,” said Hutson Mason, who has served as Murray’s top backup for four years, but up until Saturday had never thrown a pass when the game was still in doubt. "It’s kind of jaw-dropping to see him limp off the field.
"Because for five years he hasn’t even had a minor injury.”
Whether this is a minor a major injury remains to be seen. Either way Georgia (7-4) seems likely to be without its star quarterback for the season finale at Georgia Tech, this Saturday.
“Yeah I think it’d be tough for him to play this week,” Richt said. “I wouldn’t count out a bowl right this minute.”
The only good news for the Bulldogs is that his backup looked pretty good, and Murray had a fine game before his injury. The result was the most points Georgia has scored in an SEC game since 2004, when it had 62 against Kentucky.
In fact, this was Georgia’s most complete performance of the season, both on offense and defense. The beleaguered defense allowed a season-low 211 yards. The offense had its third-most yards, and its most points of the season. And when the Bulldogs took a 21-0 lead in the first quarter, it was their largest first-half lead of any game this year. The cardiac Bulldogs finally cruised to a victory, start to finish.
But it was all overshadowed by the injury to their star quarterback, for what was supposed to basically be Aaron Murray Appreciation Night.
Murray was hobbled for much of the second quarter. At one point the coaches had decided to replace him with Mason, but Murray argued his way out of it. And when Murray came up limping after one play, he literally waved off Mason, who had jogged a few steps onto the field.
"I tried to put Hutson in and basically he wouldn't let me,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “He's a tough kid, and I'm honored really to coach him and be getting to know him for the last five years. We'll see what happens with the MRI. But I'm proud with him tonight. I'm proud with the whole team."
Georgia’s whole season has been marred by injuries. Its top receiver, Malcolm Mitchell, tore his ACL on the second series of the season. The next three top receivers and the two top tailbacks have all missed at least two games or suffered season-ending injuries.
Murray had survived, making his 52nd straight career start on Saturday, dating back to the 2010 season opener. But the streak is on the verge of ending.
“It does kind of seem like the last straw,” said receiver Chris Conley, who himself missed two games with a sprained ankle. “There was a lot of silence on that sideline when that happened, not because we were afraid, but because we were worried for him. He put so much work into this, he’s given so much for this community, for this school, and to see him go down, especially on his senior night, is unfortunate for us.”
The cruel irony for Murray is that his final pass in Sanford Stadium was an interception. It wasn’t necessarily his fault: The pass went off a receiver’s hands, went in the air and was picked off. After Murray threw it, Kentucky’s Za’Darius Smith threw Murray to the ground.
At halftime, while Murray waited in a separate room with his family, he made a rueful statement to Richt.
“He did mention, ‘That’s about how our season has gone,’ ” Richt said. “It was tough.”
Before his injury, Murray had four touchdown passes, and 183 passing yards, as well as 31 rushing yards.
He also reached yet another milestone: Murray became just the third quarterback to ever pass for 3,000 yards in all four of his seasons. The other two were Timmy Chang of Hawaii and Kellen Moore of Boise State.
Mason proved very capable in Murray’s absence. He passed for a touchdown and rushed for another, racking up 189 passing yards.
Star tailback Gurley finished the game with 167 total yards (90 receiving and 77 rushing) on 17 touches.Receiver Rhett McGown and tight end Arthur Lynch, playing in their final home games, each had a couple of touchdowns. And Josh Harvey-Clemons, who failed to bat down Auburn’s winning touchdown last week, recovered two fumbles.
It was a small bit of redemption for a star-crossed and injury-riddled team, which finished its disappointing season with one resounding victory, but one more deflating injury.
“Nobody deserves a perfect ending like he does, after everything he’s done for this program and this school,” said Lynch, who is Murray’s closest friend on the team. “Off the field he’s been an ambassador for UGA, and on the field he’s done everything in his power to win football games and make his legacy as one of the best quarterbacks to ever play. So to see him go down like that is tough.”